Thursday, 12 September 2013

Stranger Than Fiction: The Law Code of Hammurabi

A column dedicated to pointing out interesting tidbits of history, some of which would be cool to see in a fantasy novel or two. 

The Oldest Code of Laws in the World AKA The Code of Laws Promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon 

Trans: C. H. W. Johns, M.A. in 1903
[Note: I'm sure there are more modern, accurate, and easier to read, translations, but this one's free and I could read it on my iPad, so it's what I went with.]

I had heard that the law code of King Hammurabi had similarities to the Ten Commandments in the Bible, but I didn't realize just how similar the laws were until I read them.  But it's not just the laws themselves that are similar, but also the way in which the law was given, by God (or, in Hammurabi's case, a god) to man.  From the introduction to the code, "It contains on the obverse a very interesting representation of the King Hammmurabi, receiving his laws from the seated sun-god Samas, 'the judge of heaven and earth'".

Though the translation isn't the easiest to read (or understand) the code as a whole has some very interesting laws with regards to property, especially that of women (both in marriage and upon the death of their father or husband).  Here are a few tidbits I found interesting:

section 1. If a man weave a spell and put a ban upon a man, and has not justified himself, he that wove the spell upon him shall be put to death.

section 2. If a man has put a spell upon a man, and has not justified himself, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river, he shall plunge into the holy river, and if the holy river overcome him, he who wove the spell upon him shall take to himself his house.  If the holy river makes that man to be innocent, and has saved him, he who laid the spell upon him shall be put to death.  He who plunged into the holy river shall take to himself the house of him who wove the spell upon him.

I find it interesting that the first two sections of the law deal with witchcraft / spellwork, showing that not only were such things considered real, they were of such importance that they're mentioned before any other crime.  The second section also indicates that the idea of 'trial by water' or 'let God decide innocence' predates the Middle Ages by quite a lot.

section 21. If a man has broken into a house, one shall kill him before the breach and bury him in it (?).

I wouldn't have understood this had I not listened to a lecture (The Other Side of History, Mesopotamia) that explained it.  Basically, if I break into your house then you get to not only kill me, but wall me up in (or perhaps bury me in the foundation of) your house.  

section 48. If a man has a debt upon him and a thunderstorm ravaged his field or carried away the produce, or the corn has not grown through lack of water, in that year he shall not return corn to the creditor, he shall alter his tablet and he shall not give interest for that year.

I find it interesting that acts of God are considered worthy reasons to defer payment on a loan, an acknowledgement that life isn't always fair and people shouldn't be punished for things they cannot control.

Men were allowed to divorce their wives without any question BUT their ex's got to take their marriage portion (ie, dowry) with them and could then marry whoever they wanted once their children were grown.  

section 138. If a man has set his face to put away his concubine who has borne him children or his wife who has granted him children, to that woman he shall return her her marriage portion and shall give her the usufruct of field, garden, and goods, and she shall bring up her children.  From the time that her children are grown up, from whatever is given to her children they shall give her a share like that of one son, and she shall marry the husband of her choice.

For their own part, women could divorce their husbands but only if they acted well with regards to their households.

section 141. If a woman hates her husband and has said 'Thou shalt not possess me', one shall enquire into her past what is her lack, and if she has been economical and has no vice, and her husband has gone out and greatly belittled her, that woman has no blame, she shall take her marriage portion and go off to her father's house.

If they didn't, 
Section 143. If she has not been economical, a goer about, has wasted her house, has belittled her husband, that woman one shall throw her into the waters.

There are, of course, some extremely harsh rules, like those that led to the 'eye for an eye' Biblical ones.

section 195. If a man has struck his father, his hands one shall cut off.

section 196. If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman's eye, his eye one shall cause to be lost.

But the rules apply differently based of the class of the victim and perpetrator.

section 198.  If he has caused a poor man to lose his eye or shattered a poor man's limb, he shall pay one mina of silver.

section 199. If he has caused the loss of the eye of a gentleman's servant or has shattered the limb of a gentleman's servant, he shall pay half his price.

When it comes to doctoring, there are set payments for particular procedures, but fierce punishments should the procedure go wrong.

section 218. If the doctor has treated a gentleman for a severe wound with a lancet of bronze and has caused the gentleman to die, or has opened an abscess of the eye for a gentleman with the bronze lancet and has caused the loss of the gentleman's eye, one shall cut off his hands. 

The code ends with the costs of hiring various craftsmen, meaning there was a standard (something the guilds in the late middle ages were brought in to help create and regulate).

So, why post this here?  Because laws tell us a lot about the society that needs them.  If a crime isn't taking place, than a law against that crime isn't necessary.  If you're writing a SF/F novel, then what laws do your peoples follow?  How do they differ - and how might those differences cause problems?  Even lawless societies tended to follow some sort of code of conduct.  And even if the laws themselves don't make your story, they make good background information for you to know.

Personally, I'm curious how long the laws in Hammurabi's code were followed and why he decided it was time to write them down.  Might make an interesting story on its own.  If you disagree, consider the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments.

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